The 1999 Columbine High School murderers were 17 and 18 years old. Last month, an 18-year-old girl — originally from Florida — who wanted to imitate those murders traveled to Colorado, bought a shotgun and then, as police closed in, shot herself to death. Also last month, two Florida teens were arrested while plotting a mass shooting for their middle school the next day. At ages 13 and 14, they had planned to imitate Columbine and wanted to be the youngest to shoot up a school.
Is there something in the water in Florida? Or could it be the month of April? What makes mass shootings perversely attractive, especially to “vulnerable” people? And by vulnerable I’m thinking of people with a grudge or who are angry at some perceived social blight — people who are different and are bullied.
Yet, the older man who committed the 2017 Las Vegas murders was by no means bullied. And he wasn’t obsessed with Columbine or any other mass shooting. He just decided that it might be exciting or that a shooting would make him famous.
‘Copycat’ Shooters Fixating on Dates
According to former FBI Criminal Profiler Clint Van Zandt, “copycat” shooters often become obsessed with the date of a tragedy that they hope to emulate. In the Columbine case, April 20. And in the more symbolic example of the 2001 airplane hijackings, 9/11 — the number we use to call for help. (The Las Vegas murders took place on Oct. 1 and the Sandy Hook murders on Dec. 14, but my guess is they won’t be imitated.)
Those are perhaps good dates to be especially on guard (though I’m willing to bet that if you made a thorough search of U.S. history, you could find something infamous that took place on every day of the year, including Christmas).
Van Zandt suggests that someone’s ego becomes involved when planning or studying a crime such as the Columbine murders. Copycats, according to his research, believe they will “get more attention” for having a follow-up crime on that date. Typically, law enforcement beefs up staffing and surveillance ahead of such anniversaries. They comb social media for “red flags” and add extra patrols, both undercover and visible.
Neither Van Zandt nor any other professional profiler believes that there is a reliable profile of a mass attacker. Apparently, though — and I haven’t been able to document this — numerous attackers have confessed to using the Columbine shootings and date as their blueprint. Why? Columbine stands out because it was one of the first incidents that was captured live on television, and elements of that miserable day can still be watched on YouTube.
Police Tactics Have Changed
Police tactics have changed since Columbine. The 1999 tactical plan was to call for backup, set up a perimeter, wait and negotiate. But the teen killers didn’t want to negotiate. They wanted to kill. So police have changed gears. The protocol now is to enter a school (or mall or office building) as soon as backup arrives. Especially since the 2018 Parkland, Florida, shootings produced eyewitness accounts of a befuddled sheriff and a deputy hiding outside, protocol is to go in and immediately engage the shooter(s).
I don’t know what might have happened if the young woman who wanted to imitate the Columbine shootings had slipped through the law enforcement net. She might have realized her folly, or she might have inflicted terrible tragedy at an elementary school.
April 20, 2019, slipped by with a memorial service, but it will roll around again next year, as will all the other dates. But no date is sacrosanct for someone who plans to harm others. Every date — every day — is a fresh opportunity for mayhem, regardless of motive or age. And that’s why we carry.
About Rick Sapp
After his stint in the U.S. Army, including time as an infantry platoon leader and working with West German KRIPO during the 1968 Soviet invasion, Rick Sapp returned home to earn a Ph.D. in social anthropology. Following his education from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Catholic University of America and the University of Florida, he moved to France for a year. Rick worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before turning to journalism and freelance writing. He has authored more than 50 books for a variety of publishers.